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Book review

The Four Agreements

A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

by Miguel Ruiz

The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz

Some useful advice, buried under many layers of mysticism. So yes, the principles of the Four Agreements are sound psychological advice. They are: Be Impeccable With Your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions, and Always Do Your Best, and all four are indeed excellent advice in general terms.

But no, the trappings in which it was wrapped did not work for me. Although it’s possible that the wisdom of the Toltec culture survives, the reality is they were a mesoamerican culture that died out nearly a thousand years ago and left no written records, although they certainly left some impressively large stepped pyramids. My conclusion: directionally interesting, but the terrain over which one traveled wasn’t helpful. Two stars, regardless of how much Opra loves it, because it’s recycled and wrapped in too much mystic claptrap.

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Book review

The Honour of the Knights

by Stephen J. Sweeney

The Honour of the Knights by Stephen J. Sweeney

The plot of this science fiction novel has a lot of potential: a group of elite pilots are training in the latest star fighters, to do battle with an implacable enemy, and they slowly begin to think that all is not quite what it seems in the ongoing war.

Sadly, I found the writing style quite weak. For me, it was clunky with little flow to it, and too much dependence on telling a number of details, rather than letting me intuit it. It also has a whiff of thesaurus about it at times:

“Simon took a look at his bedside clock. The illuminated green numbers informed him that it was just past four thirty”.

Really, the numbers informed him, did they? So no points for style, a couple of points for a reasonable plot.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, and I hate writing a review like this for a number of reasons. But I also know I would want to be able to read reviews like this for books I might be about to buy. So, sorry, but only two stars here.

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Book review

The Obelisk Gate

by N.K.Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate was, I’m very sorry to say, a sad disappointment to me. Especially after the brilliance of the first in the trilogy The Fifth Season. This felt to me like about a quarter of a book’s worth of plot, stretched out across a whole book, because it’s a trilogy and so, y’know, it needs three books. The plot did advance – in particular with Nessun, the young daughter we were chasing after in the first book – but not as far as one would’ve hoped. And the same style was there, with the main character being written about in the second person, by a mysterious voice. But it didn’t really add anything substantial to the amazing world that was created in book one, nor were there any particular plot twists to delight the reader.

Quite upset about this all, I have to say. I’m not sure I’ll be able to persuade myself to read the last one, in case that, too, is disappointing.

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Book review

The Quantum Spy

by David Ignatius

The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius

So very disappointed in this novel, I’m sorry to say. It’s set in the present day, with China as the baddie for our intrepid CIA spies, and it has a bit of a techie theme, with the plot loosely set around the search for real life quantum computing. I had high hopes – quantum stuff, spies, high-tech thriller potential, what’s not to love?

Well, what’s not to love is cardboard characters straight from central casting (the hard-as-nails CIA deputy director, the geeky CEO of a tech company, the conflicted American-Chinese), the wildly telegraphed plot line, the simple straight-line narrative thread, written so you didn’t have to worry about losing the thread when you got up from the sunbed where you were reading this to buy an icecream (or a margarita, as you choose).

Some bits weren’t bad – there were some nice snippets of “tradecraft”, and the tech stuff about quantum computers was actually very well done, from a techie POV. And the scenes were set in some interesting places, generally very credibly described. But still not enough to get past the disappointment.

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Book review

The Three-Body Problem

by Liu Cixin (Author), Ken Liu (Translator)

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I’d heard and read so much about this book, it’s won all sorts of awards, and when I came to it myself it was… underwhelming. There seemed to me to be some rather large plot holes (given the apparent god-like powers available to some of the participants).

To be fair, there was some interesting speculative science in here as well, which I enjoyed. However, I struggled with the characters: for many of the key ones, there actions seemed at best insufficiently motivated, and at worst simply transparent devices to move the story along its determined arc. Again, I did learn some interesting things about the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and beyond, but I’m not sure that was the whole point.

It’s the first of a trilogy, and I’m not sure I can face the others. Too many books with a higher probability of being excellent out there for me to risk my time on another few hundred pages which will likely be as similarly a miss for me. It’s a shame when reading becomes an exercise in Bayesian statistics, but my prior odds on the next in the trilogy being worth my time aren’t looking good right now. Maybe I’ll get enough new information to change my mind!

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Book review

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold

by Stephen Fry

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Oh Mr. Fry, how I love thee, let me count the ways! Sadly, in the end, this book failed to be one of the ways in which that love could find its expression.

The first third was the setup: a recap of the family tree of the early gods, immortals, Titans, and other supernatural beings. This inevitably has a bit of a tendency to be an old-testament-style recitation of “X begat Y who begat Z”, perhaps spiced up a little as it is more mythic to “X slept with his sister and begat Y who then appeared as a goldfish in a dream with her uncle and thus begat Z”.

The remainder was a retelling of a number of the core stories from the resulting myths. Many I vaguely knew, although they often had surprising endings that I didn’t know (e.g. King Midas and his golden touch). Each one was just, I think, too insubstantial, told only in skeleton form, without much colour – albeit with Stephen Fry’s characteristic twist of humour. Other stories I didn’t know, but just didn’t feel improved by the knowing of.

So Mr Fry saved this as a two star book, and it makes the “it was OK” pile. I’d read more of his fiction any day, just not sure about this one…

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Book review

The Character of Physical Law

Rating: 2 star (!)

This was a tough review for me: I mean, Richard Feynman?! The man is a god, really, plus the whole Nobel Prize thing, who am I to criticise? Unfortunately I think this book is showing its age, especially in the writing style. It’s more or less a transcription of Feynman speaking his lectures, as captured by the BBC in the 1960s, and unfortunately that doesn’t translate terribly well into a writing style.

It’s also starting a bunch of physics from (nearly) the beginning, which means that for me, it didn’t tell me anything terribly new.

On the other hand, it does give a very different perspective on things like Newton’s theory of gravity, which you might not see in many other places. I enjoyed also his complete transparency about how physics, and science in general, is done: you make bold predictions about things in completely new spaces, you test them out, then if they fail you guess at the form of new laws that might explain them. And he’s quite clear about the guessing part: great scientists are great guessers. Which makes Prof. Feynman a guesser of interstellar proportions, I think. A true polymath genius, that man. So I feel bad about the 2 stars, but I’m reviewing the book, not the man!